Dennis' Review Of 'Choke'
I saw Choke Monday night at the LA Film Festival. This was the Los Angeles premiere of the movie, and Fox Searchlight Pictures graciously sent me two tickets so that my roommate and I could attend. I'll admit right off the bat, this was a thing I was sort of worried about. It's been almost nine years since our last Chuck Palahniuk movie adaptation. Since Fight Club. During that time, everyone under the sun has tried to get other projects of Chuck's off the ground. From the turbulent aftermath of 9/11, which put a screeching halt on a movie version of 'Survivor'. To the long battle filmmaker Jesse Peyronel has fought to get 'Invisible Monsters' funded. To the rumors that 'Haunted' would be a mini-series for Showtime or HBO. Or that 'Diary' would star Julianne Moore and Glen Close. Every time a new rumor hits the net, it spreads like a virus. Quite simply, because Chuck Palahniuk has developed a ravenous fanbase, and they're thirsting for more of his visions on the big screen.
A 'Choke' adaptation quickly became a part of this maelstrom of gossip and speculation. Some guy named Clark Gregg was attached to it. He had written 'What Lies Beneath', a taut thriller that I always find myself recommending to people. I've seen that movie three times already, and it's one of the closest examples to a modern day Hitchcock tale I can find. At the time though, that was all I knew about Clark Gregg. I didn't even know he was an actor. It wasn't until I saw the wonderful 'In Good Company', and he won me over with the line (when speaking to Topher Grace), "Wow, you're like the new me. (pauses to think). No. I'm the new me." Still, Gregg was untested in many a Palahniuk fans eyes. David Fincher had been placed on the altar. And to a lot of fans, nothing could or would ever be allowed to touch him.
I remember thinking this was sort of stupid and unfair. Not only would I not want to see another Palahniuk adaptation by Fincher (Not because I don't love Fincher. He's actually one of my favorite directors. I'd just prefer a new vision), but anyone who knew Clark's story with this project, would just have to respect him and give him his shot. Here's a guy that read 'Choke' in ARC form, and the next day was on the phone with his agent telling him to buy the rights. In the seven years that followed, Gregg struggled to find financing for the film, aided by some very strong support from his producers at ContraFilm, and an unflinching show of loyalty by none other than Chuck Palahniuk. I've since learned that Chuck had to make a lot of sacrifices to keep the project with Clark that long. But he believed in him. He believed in the script. And so they waited.
Fast forward to 2008, and images of 'Choke' were finally showing up online. And this is where I catch you up to my unease going into the Monday night screening. Because I must confess; the images I were seeing weren't thrilling me that much. I kept my mouth shut on this. But I began to pick up on some mixed reactions from the fans too. People were comparing what they were seeing to 'Fight Club'. Which again, wasn't fair as, Fincher with a budget of about 65+ million, had about ten times the amount of money that Clark Gregg did! But besides a great cast, a director and a script that Chuck believed in, and rave reviews from Sundance with a Special Jury Prize to boot, something about the tone of 'Choke' worried me. That low budget was showing its creases in what appeared to be more of a raunchy sexy comedy, than the thought-provoking statement on love and community that the novel was.
And so, the PR position that the webmaster of Chuck Palahniuk's official website sometimes finds himself in, was threatening to make me have to plaster on a smile, shade my thoughts on the film, and shake hands all around.
Well, that didn't happen.
'Choke' was awesome. Any caution I had about what I saw in the trailer vanished instantly as the film exploded onto the screen with such life and vibrancy. I think five minutes in, the crowd was already roaring with laughter and clapping for lines. I'm close to typing a frenzy here, so let me take a second to compose my thoughts on how much I liked about 'Choke' and what Clark Gregg accomplished.
Okay. All better. Here goes.
First, put the book out of your mind. I did. Granted, it's been years since I last read it. And I did recognize that things had been changed. But being away from the book allowed me to watch the movie AS a movie. And not a retelling of Palahniuk's novel. And this was good. This is what Chuck wanted. So from the moment the movie began, I was watching the movie. And not imagining the book. Though, I honestly think if I had read the book last week, I'd still have liked the movie this much.
'Choke' has a total charm to it. A lot of that is owed to the performance of Sam Rockwell. Let me be extremely clear on this: Rockwell is PERFECTLY CAST as Victor Mancini. He brings 100% to every scene. His look. His manners. His gesticulations. His sarcasm and downward spiral are quite beautiful to behold. Even some of the scenes that I had problems with (more on that later) ended up working for me because of Sam Rockwell.
The rest of the cast does their jobs well. I know some of you have been worried about Brad Henke as Denny, but don't be. He's great. I felt Angelica Houston was a little wrong, physically for the part. I was expecting to see a destroyed old woman in those hospital scenes. But I think budget might have limited them here. And Angelica, being the amazing actress that she is, makes it work for the most part. Kelly Macdonald, was good as Paige Marshall. I think I remembered more attitude and presence from this character in the book, but Kelly's shy and soft-spoken way contrasts nicely with Sam's performance of Victor, and makes her become the unattainable object of lust he quickly begins to desire.... even if his dick tells him it's something more than sex.
Perhaps the biggest ace in the hole Clark Gregg unveils in the movie... is himself, playing the role of Lord High Charlie. I always liked Gregg as an actor, so this didn't surprise me. But it was nice to see him go head to head with Rockwell in what are easily some of the funniest moments in the whole movie. There's one scene in particular where Rockwell tries to rank out Gregg, and Gregg stays in old colonial character while stepping up to him with his arms out, in a confrontational manner. "What doust though say?" It's a golden moment and the crowd loved it.
Then there's all the scenes with the old ladies in the home. Not one missed moment here. As the ladies slowly start to realize there may be something 'special' about Victor, I found myself leaning forward in my seat with a smile I couldn't remove from my face. The scene in the locker room, where Victor tries to convince them he's not who they think he is, is classic. I could watch this scene over and over again.
With all this praise, I do have to point out some minor mis-steps in the movie. The flashback scenes with a young Victor and his mother, Ida, just didn't work for me. This again, may have been a budget constraint with wardrobe, background, and just the look of these scenes. But I found myself drifting into a little boredom whenever the film went into a flashback. Then there was Denny's arc, which felt a little clunky. He transforms from the lovable, masturbating best friend, into the wizened, sagely dude, building a house of rocks with his new girlfriend, Cherry Daiquiri, pretty much off-screen. Granted, it may have been this way in the book as well. But I felt this could have transpired a little smoother.
In the end, 'Choke' ends exactly the way I like a film to end. I won't spoil it. But it was a new ending that Chuck told me wasn't in the Sundance Film Festival cut. The moment captured on screen, and the song that is playing while the credits rolled, just completely won me over and made me feel very good about the film. Here is a moving story of love, as only Chuck can write, and as Clark captured and nurtured brilliantly. Even now, sitting here typing this, I'm excited for Clark Gregg, and am eager for more Chuck Palahniuk fans to see this. September 26th can't come soon enough.
After the movie ended, Clark Gregg was introduced to a big applause. His face was so red with emotions, and he was literally bouncing on the soles of his feet. This immediately made me like the guy as a real person. All the work and love he put into this film, for the past seven years, was just stamped in his eyes. And when he introduced Chuck to the stage (which, by the way, was the loudest applause of the night), it was so obvious what a big fan of his work Clark is. I think they even hugged each other at one point, in a really sweet moment. Clark and Chuck then fielded a great Q&A. Not one bad question. And Chuck, as always, completely held the crowd in his sway. I swear, this man has a gift for just owning crowds.
As the Q&A ended, I politely (yet stupidly) filed out of my seat with everyone else. Turns out, I should have stayed. Clark and Chuck had a gift they wanted to present me with: A wall-mountable lobby poster for 'Choke' signed by both of them. A messenger from Fox Searchlight Pictures just dropped it off today. It's signed:
"Big love to Dennis' - Clark Gregg
"Hey Dennis -- You've seen it, finally!! And it was worth the wait!" - Your Friend, Chuck Palahniuk
Hell yeah, it was worth the wait. Maybe now, all those stalled adaptations of Chuck's other books will finally get the greenlight they so deserve. If Clark Gregg, in all his wonderful dedication and talent, was able to pull such a strong adaptation of 'Choke' off for such a limited budget (and with only a 21 day production shoot!), there's no reason we shouldn't be seeing more of Chuck's original and bizarre visions on the screen soon.
With 'Choke', Chuck is now 2/2. And Clark Gregg deserves to be well on his way to a successful career as a filmmaker. Bravo, guys!